One of the toughest jobs for a softball umpire is ruling on inside pitches. There is a lot happening at once and there are a lot of moving parts. But it doesn’t have to be difficult. Inside pitches can be simple to handle if you use proper techniques and become reliant on the same system each pitch. Using these systems and techniques, you can virtually eliminate the inside corner, allowing you to focus on other more difficult pitches.
Pitches on the inside part of the plate require more than just a ball or strike ruling. Other factors also need to be ruled on: Is the batter in or out of the batter’s box on contact? Was the batter hit by a pitched ball or did the ball hit the bat? Did the batter get hit by a contacted ball? We need to assure our position is sufficient to cover all of these factors.
Setting up for an inside pitch must put you in the same position for each pitch, eliminating the chances of incorrect judgment. Choosing for example to put your right eye on the inside corner for each pitch on a right-handed batter will allow you to all but eliminate judgment in that location while working in a slot position and opening up a broader view of the entire plate. Foot placement and body positioning are essential. While using your eyes to line yourself up, you will find that your feet and body will also be in the same position, maintaining consistency of other portions of the plate as well. Over time, and with experience, your feet will go to the right spot. You shouldn’t have to look down each pitch as “muscle memory” will take over.
Experiment with which body part you are most comfortable lining up with the inside corner of the plate. In speaking to many high-level umpires, there are some different preferences in which body part to align. Many umpires choose to use their right eye for a right-handed batter, therefore allowing them to see the pitch coming either to their right as a strike or the left as a ball. Some, including myself, choose to use the nose as a reference point. Putting your nose between the corner of the batter’s box closest to the plate and the inside corner of the plate works well. With this method, the umpire can then determine that any pitch at or to the right of the nose on a right-handed batter (at or to the left of the nose on a left-handed batter) had to have caught some part of the inside corner. Adding proper head height and a calm, comfortable stance to the mix will make all pitches on the inside of the plate much simpler to judge. Umpires must eliminate unnecessary head movement. Allow the ball to enter the zone — do not move the zone to the ball. The best way to eliminate doing so is to drop into your stance early enough to see the release of the pitch and follow the ball all the way to the glove. If you feel like you are being rushed on pitches or you aren’t seeing the pitch all the way through, you most likely are dropping late. Get set early enough so you can see all elements of the pitch and it will help you have an accurate zone and will also help on the other rulings that come with an inside pitch.
Calling a batter out of the batter’s box on contact can sometimes be difficult. However, that ruling should be made with consistency and accuracy and can often be a critical call or no-call. The best umpires in the game get this call correct, and therefore are confident to make it at critical stages. Proper alignment for the inside pitch can contribute to success of this difficult situation. The key is to put yourself in position so you can see all the elements of the play and allow your eyes to see the entire play. You often have a catcher who is moving to potentially make a play and a batter moving to run toward first base. You must have an angle and see the entire play in order to rule on it. Sometimes, the best movement is to take a step back and allow the play to open up in front of you. Sometimes, the best thing to do is not move at all; the play can happen so quickly that if you move you may miss it. It takes time and experience to know which decision to make. Even the best plate umpires in the world sometimes get screened and simply can’t see the play and they know they must rely on their partners to help them. If you are screened, the best thing to do as the plate umpire is to not make a signal. The worst thing you can do is guess and potentially get the call wrong. Allow the play to continue and then if your partners have information, they can assist.
Another difficult call that can be made easy through proper alignment is a hit batter. Most highlevel umpires do not miss the batter leaning into the pitch or diving out of the box in an attempt to “wear” a strike. While it can be difficult to stay still when a pitch comes up and in, it is imperative to not move. Keeping your head still and your eyes focused on the pitch are essential in getting this call right. If you move your head, your perception will be off and if you blink, you will miss the action. Players are bigger and stronger now and when the ball hits their body, it can sound like it is hitting the bat. You need to be able to see what it hit and not guess. Take your time on this call. Once you know the ball hit something, there is no need to rush this call. The last thing you want to do is kill the play and later realize the ball hit the bat and went into fair territory and you just took away an opportunity for the defense to make an out. Use all information available to you — your eyes and ears, batter reaction, potential welt on the batter, information from your partners — to get this call right.
The most difficult call to make in regard to a hit batter is whether or not she attempted to get hit by the pitch, and then whether that pitch is ruled a strike. Anytime you keep a batter at the plate after she gets hit is going to upset her coach. And if you rule the pitch a strike, especially strike three, it will make things even more difficult.
The key in this situation is to remain calm and explain the ruling to the coach using rulebook language. As batters wear more and more protective gear and crowd the plate to take away the inside part of the plate from the pitcher, these situations are becoming more prevalent. The key is staying focused on the pitch all the way through and allowing the play to develop. Don’t let a batter’s reaction fool you and don’t be too quick to make this call. Allow the play to develop, give your brain time to process what your eyes have seen and then make the decision. Since the ball is dead, there is no need to rush this call.
Umpires who set up in the same manner each pitch using the proper mechanics will find simple success in calling inside pitches. Consistency is key to getting these calls right. Practice these mechanics each time out, become comfortable with them and they will serve you well.
It is very important to get inside pitches correct and stay consistent with them. Coaches will have a deep respect for the umpire who has a strong command of the zone and allows both teams the same corner. Pitchers who can command the inside part of the plate are often difficult for hitters to deal with. Give them their corner when they hit it, but do not expand it. And when the ball comes too far inside, use your mechanics, process the play and make sure you make a ruling that is fair based on the rulebook.
These simple techniques will help open up the play and help you get those calls correct.
Chad Vanderstelt is an NCAA umpire from Fruitport, Mich., working multiple D-I, D-II and D-III conferences. He has worked multiple NCAA regional and super regional tournaments. He has also worked several USSSA World Championships, including the finals in 2017 and 2018.
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